Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

February 15, 2014

Fact Check: Health care law and firefighters

By Steve Contorno

PolitiFact.com

New guidelines from the U.S. Treasury Department are giving some employers more time to get insurance for their workers before facing a penalty. But the guidelines also settle an issue that we’ve fact-checked before on how regulations will affect volunteer firefighters.

Back in December, PolitiFact readers flagged a Facebook post by the conservative group Generation Opportunity that said “Obamacare could force thousands of volunteer fire stations to cut service or close entirely.”

It turned out there was some merit to those concerns, though they were exaggerated by Generation Opportunity, the same group that ran anti-Obamacare ads depicting Uncle Sam giving a gynecological exam. We ended up giving the claim a Half True.

On Feb. 10, 2014, the Treasury Department released final guidelines for the employer mandate that requires large businesses to provide workers insurance. The new rules specifically exempt volunteer fire and rescue units from that provision, a clarification that previously wasn’t included.

Here is what was at issue:

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with the equivalent of 50 or more full-time workers must provide health insurance. If not, they face a penalty of $2,000 for every worker after 30 (though that mandate was delayed until January 2015 and on Feb. 10, President Barack Obama again pushed it back another year for employers with 50-99 full-time employees).

Whether the employer mandate applied to volunteer fire and rescue units was unclear in December. While many of the 25,000 volunteer fire stations are small and serve rural units, some larger counties and municipalities were concerned their volunteer stations would be counted with other government employees. Providing insurance to volunteer firefighters would be very costly to their departments, they said.

The original draft regulations did not mention volunteer rescue workers.

Adding to the confusion was a previous ruling from the Treasury Department that said volunteer firefighters were considered full-time employees for tax purposes, meaning their benefits could be taxed.

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